irish surfer Fergal Smith turned his back on jet set travel and the lucrative contracts of professional surfing to grow organic vegetables in his hometown of Lahinch. Mpora went to see him to find out why.
“We’re moving Holly,” Fergal says as he moves ancient papers, analogue cameras, agricultural tools and jam jars of seeds and nuts to clear a space for me in the passenger seat of his van. The old Ford Transit rumbles into gear, as does Ferg’s fast paced Irish lilt.
“The pig was a big, big thing for me,” he says. “The moment you have an animal you have a responsibility. I was like this the pig has made me go all in. There’s no turning back. It was a game changer.”
It transpires Holly is a pig, and she is in the trailer behind us being moved from the house Fergal shares with his partner Sally and daughter Sunshine to the yard of a local school principal. Holly will “turn” the yard, or eat all the brambles and weeds, turning a small tract of unusable land into a plot of soil that will be ready to grow food.
The last time I hung out with Ferg was in 2008 and he had also picked me up in his van. That model, however, was a new black Mercedes, and rather than being covered in mud and pig shit like the Ford, it was splattered from boot to bonnet with the gothic font of the Relentless logo, an energy drink owned by Coca-Cola, and Ferg’s then main sponsor.
He also was towing a trailer, but instead of a 250-tonne pig, it contained two brand new Yamaha 1200 HP jet skis, also logo-ed to within an inch of their lives. You see back then Fergal was chasing waves. Chasing huge, never-before-ridden waves in Ireland, and massive slabs all over the planet. It made him famous in the surfing world, and relatively rich.
Now though, he has stopped chasing waves, stopped flying altogether in fact. He has ceased to be a professional surfer and is chasing an idea. His world has become smaller, but his ideas, well, they have grown a whole lot bigger. He wants to grow food and help sustain a community. He wants to make the world a better place.
I arranged to meet Ferg the next day at a plot of land called The Moy Community Gardens. It is high on the hill that overlooks the town of Lahinch with views over its sweeping bay all the way to the towering Cliffs of Moher. After a tour of a glasshouse built into the ground that contains avocados and peach trees, exotic kiwi fruit and hundreds of small seedlings, we sit down for a long chat over a cup of herbal tea.
Ferg fills the kettle directly from the well at the top of the patch. “It wasn’t a gradual process,” he says, and I think he is referring to the ordered sections of different vegetables, chicken coops, compost heaps, circular fire pit and paved paths that terrace down the hill to an amphitheatre at the base. But he’s not.
“I had a lightbulb moment in Tahiti in 2011,” he says. “Myself, Mickey Smith and Tom Lowe had this amazing swell and on the last day I busted my knee real bad. I had two weeks just sitting on the couch. It was the time of the Tsunami and nuclear fallout in the Pacific and I and was weighing it all up. I grew up on an organic farm and I just asked myself the big question: what can I do? I can grow food, I’ve got a Dad who can teach me how to do everything as well and I love Ireland. I had always preferred the ways of home and I just decided to honour where I live and to be present there.”
It is typical of Fergal’s single-minded nature that he acted on this realisation quickly and decisively. “I emailed everyone, all my friends, my sponsors and said, ‘I’m going home to start farming and that’s that. The next time I come to Tahiti, it will be by boat.’”
True to his word Ferg also hasn’t hopped in a plane for over two years. “I flew to a lot of places, saw a lot of cool things, but surely there should be a quota. I think if I do anymore flights, I’m just taking the piss,” he says simply.
Ferg stands up and points to the garden. “After being back a few months I was told by the landowner that we could use this land, but it was under six feet of brambles and shrub. It was the end of the summer and I said I’d have a cook up on the land. Sally was the only friend keen to help. She said, ‘You’re mental. You’ve invited 50 people to a load of brambles.’”
“It took us over two hours just to find the gate, but eventually we made a little track and a 20 foot circle clearing and then dug a hole, got a fire lit, ran up the hill, got a load of veg put a pot on the fire and had 30 friends call over. It was amazing and all those people that came that day have helped the whole way.”
“He’s created a purpose for people and an energy to get involved,” says his former housemate and long time friend Matt Smith, a sailor, Maldives surf guide and sponsored surfer who has spent the last year or more along side Ferg in the gardens. “He’s harnessed both his single-minded energy and the good in people and, along with key crew, created a community space based on sharing. Sharing food, skills and ideas.”
“In the summer the sun sets right there,” Ferg says pointing due west to the cliffs where some of the waves he pioneered are located. “And we have these beautiful sunsets at 10.30 in the evening and this beautiful food and it gets people and families out of the conundrum of where to go. We had kids running everywhere and old farmers we didn’t talk to before passing down their knowledge to us young surfers. No one really drinks up here, it’s not a rule, but it just became about good food and good times.”
Ferg’s approach to surfing has also changed. Now with no cameras and no deadlines, he is surfing purely for the fun of it. He is still one of the premier big wave surfers in the world, talent-wise, but he’s not in it for the glory. He has even taken to lying down.
“I bodyboard a lot now which is rad, cause I have really fun sessions getting barrelled without stressing,” says Ferg. “On heavy days at Riley’s you are catching two, three or four good waves on a surfboard and you are looking at every wave and thinking it can kill you. With a bodyboard you are looking at every wave with a smile on your face.”
Of course skipping down cliffs and feeding and empowering the community is laudable, but I wonder how he can afford it all. He and a merry group of growers have been bequeathed a much bigger plot and are growing veg on a much larger scale. It’s all volunteer work, but the produce obviously has a value.
“With that extra acre, I thought, whoa now, we are actually moving into full production,” Ferg says. “I wasn’t sure if I wanted to take it on, but I thought let’s just see how it goes. We put the pigs through it and they turned it over and then it kind of materialised, step by step.”
That whole process was also captured in an online series called Growing, which has been a hit on the Youtube channel Line 9. “Well originally Chris from Line 9 asked me to do a series about me going surfing. I was right at that point where that was the last thing I wanted to be doing with my life. Could you imagine a more egotistical show?” he questions.
“But I have this theory that surfers are the best social group out there that can be a force for change. And I have the platform to reach an audience through my surfing. It could encourage surfers to get involved, either here or, better still, in their own backyards.”
Ferg drains his tea and picks up his trusted wheelbarrow, the single barrow that transformed this unused bramble patch into this vibrant garden that has sent minor positive shockwaves through the village. “Look I’m not sure where it’s headed and it’s a whole new way of life that is going to take years of learning. But I’ve made my mind up and I’m going to do it and I am ready for all the hard work. In the end, you can’t really talk about it, you just gotta do it.”